Press freedom

By Olu Fasan

THE Nigerian media is under siege. Draconian laws are being enacted to shackle its freedom. Recently, in a protest against the proposed introduction of such laws, Nigerian newspapers jointly published the same front page, with a bold headline: “Information Blackout”. To drive the message home, most of the newspapers also published front-page editorials strongly condemning and opposing the proposed laws.

Well, the proposed laws are two bills sponsored by Olusegun Odebunmi, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values. One would amend the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Act; the other the Nigerian Press Council, NPC, Act. Each bill purportedly aims to strengthen either organisation, but, in reality, if passed into law, would destroy press freedom in Nigeria.

Take the Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill. It gives the president a free rein to appoint the NPC’s board, including its chairman, without the Senate’s approval. That would allow him to fill the board with government poodles. Furthermore, the Bill makes the information minister an omnipotent media czar, with powers to approve the establishment, ownership and operation of newspapers; create a National Press Code; and impose punitive measures, including revocation of licence, on any media house deemed to have breached the code. Journalists can be fined, jailed and deregistered!

At first, I was bemused by the newspapers concerted campaign. After all, these are private member’s bills which often have no traction unless supported by the government. But the Federal Government’s equivocation and duplicitousness gave the game away.

The Presidency denied having a hand in the bills. Femi Adesina, President Buhari’s senior media adviser, said: “That’s not strictly a Presidency thing because the President has nothing to do with that”, adding: “It’s a government thing and it’s the Minister (of Information) that can talk about it.”

But the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, said the Federal Government was not behind the bills, stressing that they were a private member’s bills. However, he admitted making “contributions” to the bills and wondered why the media wouldn’t make their input into the bills instead of trying to stop them!

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But why would the media engage with bills that, at their heart, aim to stifle the press and criminalise journalists for doing their job? It’s government that should show its hand. Instead of equivocating and feigning detachment, the Presidency should say whether President Buhari supports the draconian media bills and would sign them into law if passed by the National Assembly.

Surely, Nigerians deserve to know whether their president supports bills that would destroy media freedom in Nigeria. So, why hasn’t the Presidency outrightly rejected the patently obnoxious media bills? Why is Lai Mohammed making “contributions” to bills that are irredeemably bad, even conceptually?

The answer is simple. President Buhari’s government fully supports the bills’ aims; it’s simply using Odebunmi’s private member’s bills to do the dirty work. Think of it this way: Who would benefit from the bills if they became law? First, the president: he could appoint, unrestrained, whomever he likes to the NPC board.

Second, the information minister. The NPC and NBC would become appendages of his ministry and he would have enormous powers to control the media, turning them into government mouthpieces, thus fostering “information blackout”, as the newspapers said in their joint front-page campaign!

But that’s not what good journalism is about. As the Financial Times rightly put it: “Good journalism, and by extension society, relies on leaks that expose abuses of power”. All over the world, governments want to keep their shady deeds secret and hide their skeletons in the closet. But a free press is a threat to government secrecy and abuses of power. Sadly, Nigeria’s government is not only secretive and abusive, but also doing everything to entrench its secrecy and the lack of accountability for its maladministration.

Last week, the Presidency swore its staff to an oath of secrecy. Tijjani Umar, State House permanent secretary, said that unauthorised disclosure of classified information was a grievous offence. All civilised nations have Official Secrets Acts and Civil Service Codes, and the courts are there to adjudicate on alleged breaches of official secrets acts. But subjecting employees to an oath of secrecy? That’s overreaching, authoritarian, an abuse of power!

Truth is, no official secrets law should be absolute. Of course, no one should leak sensitive information that could endanger national security. But sensible official secrets laws allow for a public interest defence to protect sources, whistle-blowers and journalists who leak unauthorised information that’s patently in the public interest, such as corruption, scandals or gross misconduct. As Martin Bright, Acting Editor of Index on Censorship, rightly put it: “Legislation that allows for no public interest defence has no place in a modern democracy”.

Sadly, despite a Freedom of Information Act, despite purported encouragement of whistle-blowing, the Nigerian government is utterly intolerant of robust investigative journalism, of public interest journalism. Rather, it wants to muzzle sources, whistle-blowers and journalists acting in the public interest. That’s what the Presidency’s oath of secrecy and Odebunmi’s government-backed “private member’s bills”are intended to achieve: to destroy media freedom and public interest journalism in Nigeria.

But if it’s any consolation, the Nigerian media should know that their British counterparts are fighting a similar battle. The UK Government proposes to amend and toughen the Official Secrets Act of 1911, ostensibly to deter foreign spies. The proposals are nowhere near as intrusive and draconian as those in Odebunmi’s bills, yet the British media believe they would undermine investigative journalism and are up in arms.

The Financial Times says: “The fourth estate must be free from threat of prosecution simply for doing its job. That includes holding the government to account”. That sentiment has been expressed in all newspaper editorials in Nigeria over the draconian media bills.

Of course, no attempt to stifle the media can succeed in Britain. In the interests of democracy and good governance, it mustn’t succeed in Nigeria!

Vanguard News Nigeria

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